The American Association for the Advancement of Science: Stored nuclear warheads 'could become unstable'

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NUCLEAR warheads of some SS-24 missiles stored in Ukraine while waiting to be dismantled could become unstable, a defence analyst warned the meeting.

A violation of the storage rules, faulty warhead design and poor maintenance has resulted in a potentially dangerous temperature increase in one storage facility, said Oleg Bukharin, a visiting scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey. 'Elevated temperatures, humidity, and changes in the gas atmosphere inside the warhead may in turn cause the high-explosives components to age, degrading their physical integrity and increasing sensitivity. This may compromise safety of disassembly operations at a dismantlement plant.'

Ukraine last year sent 1,400 tactical nuclear warheads to Russia to dismantle. More than the expected number of warheads will be shipped in the next few years because of recent disarmament treaties. Although Russia is used to high rates of dismantlement, 'what is new is the mass relocation of tactical warheads from front-line units to central staging bases and the assembly plants, unplanned increases in storage requirements for warheads and weapons components, economic crisis and . . . the deteriorating security environment (that may) compromise safety and security'.

Dr Bukharin added that the risks of a disaster existed at every stage of the dismantlement operation. 'Economic, political and technical problems make safe and secure dismantlement of many thousands of Russian nuclear weapons difficult. Any failure of the dismantlement - an accident with weapons or, even worse, their diversion - would be a disaster.'

Transporting missiles to destruction sites created some of the biggest security problems. 'The security of warhead shipments may be compromised by the lesser degree of protection of warheads, relatively wide dissemination of information about shipments, and deteriorating security environment in the country.'